Treating Sleep Disorders in the Era of COVID-19

 Published: May 3, 2021

By: Debbie Bunch



Sleep is a normal human function necessary to sustain life. But even in the best of times, getting a good night’s sleep is a problem for many people, and that goes double for people with sleep disorders. After a year of COVID-19, those problems have grown by leaps and bounds.

Amanda L. Roby, MHHS, RRT, RRT-SDS, RPSGT, RST, CCSH, is an associate professor of respiratory care and director of the clinical education BSRC program at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, with expertise in the area of sleep. She explains how the pandemic has impacted the sleep arena.

Sleep schedules suffer

“COVID-19 has not been kind to societies’ sleep schedules, especially those who have already been diagnosed with a sleep disorder,” she said. “For many people, it has generated significant stress, anxiety, and worries about health, social isolation, employment, and finances. All these complexities are only further enhanced with the challenge of combining work and family obligations.”

People with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and other sleep disorders usually require treatment, but getting them what they need during a pandemic that closed so many medical clinics down for months has been challenging. They suffered from a lack of treatment and a lack of education on how to make their treatments work to their best advantage.

Roby notes that respiratory therapists provide in-depth education to sleep patients that cover therapy benefits and information on the logistics involved in testing and treatment. Without this education, patients lack the resources they need to follow through with their care.

“Achieving patient compliance is key with this therapy,” Roby said. “If there is no in-depth education provided to the patient regarding therapy benefits, as well as consequences of not complying with treatment, a patient may choose to forego or not be compliant with therapy.”


Changes will stay

Thankfully, many sleep centers have found new ways to deliver both therapy and education to their patients during the pandemic. For most, that has meant turning to telemedicine to get the job done.

“Remote telemedicine PAP compliance therapy can be increased with in-depth education provided promptly and frequently,” Roby said. “Everyone needs proper sleep, just like everyone needs food, exercise, and low stress to thrive and live a long healthy life. Now our clinicians must use their unique skill sets to make this happen amid a pandemic.”

Roby sees better days ahead for sleep therapists and their patients with vaccines rolling out in record numbers.

“We are entering a new and hopeful phase in the pandemic,” she said.

But she believes many of the changes implemented during the pandemic — including telemedicine — will remain long after it is gone.

“Use of telemedicine to screen and monitor patients has and will continue to emerge and allow improvement in sleep disorder patients’ home self-management,” she said. “Likewise, the high rates of acute insomnia associated with this pandemic, and the evidence that acute insomnia often turns into chronic insomnia, further facilitates the need for trained sleep professionals. Sleep health education targeting the general population should be the priority to provide broad-based information about sleep health.”

The infection control measures that were brought to the forefront by COVID-19 will also stick around in the sleep setting, Roby said. “This is a positive, as environmental disinfection is always a concern with our patients.”

RTs to play an integral role

Amanda Roby believes respiratory therapists will play a vital role in all of these new developments in the world of sleep medicine, and she foresees great opportunities for therapists working in this area of care.

“The health care arena will need more trained respiratory therapists in sleep arenas to help facilitate transitions and technological advancements in sleep medicine post-COVID-19,” she said.

Join the AARC’s Sleep Section to network with your fellow AARC members interested in sleep medicine.

Visit AARC University’s Sleep Page to take advantage of continuing education programs related to sleep.

Email with questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you.

Debbie Bunch

Debbie Bunch is an AARC contributor who writes feature articles, news stories, and other content for Newsroom, the AARC website, and associated emailed newsletters. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, traveling, photography, and spending time with her children and grandchildren. Connect with Debbie by email or on AARConnect or LinkedIn.

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